Christians Need Better Conversations About Socialism
Theologian Thaddeus Williams has recently published a book on Christianity and social justice that has been sparking conversation called Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth. There is much in the book worth discussing, but the most relevant for our work at ELI are some things Williams says about inequality and socialism. Williams argues that those who promote the elimination of inequality are ultimately promoting equality at the cost of freedom and that socialism may sound noble, but is ultimately mistaken and driven by ignorance of human nature and how the world works. While there is certainly a lot to be said about how Christians ought to think about justice in a peculiarly Christian way, Williams’s critiques entirely miss the mark by failing to engage with real arguments for the positions he opposes and instead cobbling together straw positions.
First, on inequality, Williams imagines a fictional world in which all inequality is eliminated, but the choices of individuals result in massive inequalities rising once again. He claims that while inequality can result from injustice, a lot of inequality (he specifically suggests wealth inequality) also results from the different choices people make. In order to achieve absolute equality, he claims one would need to make everyone the same, stripping people of their freedom. Putting aside the issues with the usefulness of his illustration, we should first of all tackle the main problem with Williams’s inequality argument: it assumes that opposing inequality means you desire all people to be identical in every “outcome.” Who is arguing for this position? Williams does not interact with anyone, only imaginary totalitarians who wish to force everyone into conformity.
I have written in the past about this confused debate about “equality of outcomes.” There is, in fact, a very specific equality of outcomes that I think reasonably sums up what egalitarians want: equal access to the means to live a flourishing life. A society in which, say, a garbage collector was paid somewhat more than a journalist because collecting garbage is a more physically demanding and less socially desirable job is not unjust if journalists and garbage collectors have access to the means to live a flourishing life. Our present economic inequality means that some people have massive amounts of both income and economic power while others have basically none, which is why egalitarians oppose it.
Ensuring equal access to the means to live a flourishing life would increase very important kinds of freedom, contrary to Williams’s assumption that the “free market” actually does “maximize freedom.” Some forms of freedom are in conflict with one another: if a society is a free competition for anyone to accrue as much power as they desire, accruing that power will result in the violation of another’s freedom from domination. Indeed, as philosopher Elizabeth Anderson demonstrates in her book Private Government, the present order of employment entails near-total and unaccountable domination of workers. To create a society with a more equal economy would be to end that domination and greatly increase freedom. The freedom that would be diminished would be the freedom of capital owners to unilaterally and unaccountably dominate employees—a freedom I think it is reasonable to want to diminish.
An appendix in Williams’s book explicitly outlines his problems with socialism. He argues that many young Christian socialists espouse their positions out of ignorance and naivety, quoting John Stuart Mill: “He who knows only his side of the case, knows little of that.” Unfortunately, this charge rebounds back on Williams: it is not clear what exactly he thinks socialism is in this appendix, and his broad generalizations about socialism and Christian socialists ring completely false.
His central argument through this appendix is that socialism requires a high anthropology—an idea of human beings as essentially good and perfectible. For Williams, all other errors of socialism flow from this keystone error. I’ve written at more length about this particular accusation, but in short I don’t think it sticks. For this accusation to work, it would need to demonstrate that socialism does in fact require this sort of belief in inherent human sinlessness, but I do not know a single Christian socialist who espouses this position, and most (including myself) would agree that it’s a bad and very inaccurate anthropology.
Williams’s argument fails so badly because socialism is a conclusion, not a premise, and conclusions can be validly derived from a large number of different and even mutually incompatible premises. Some people arrive at socialism by use of the faulty premise that human beings would be perfected if we just organized society correctly. I think a much better premise is that human beings are made in God’s image but have a sin nature and are thus prone to domination, greed, and an accumulation of power over others. It seems logical to build a social order that restrains rather than enables this sinful impulse, so an economy that eliminates the division between owners who have huge amounts of power and workers who have very little would be much more suited to justice in a world of sinful people.
As I previously noted, it’s not clear what sort of socialism Williams has in view in this argument. His examples of socialism “offering simple, noble-sounding solutions that often inflict unexpected harm” are relieving the debt of a third-world country, American Christians giving away their shoes to people living in third-world countries, and the government artificially restricting the price of eggs—none of which are socialism. Yet the threat looming on the horizon of welfare programs and egg regulation is the Soviet Union or Venezuela. But welfare programs and industry regulation is not what is bad about those social orders. We can know this because lots of countries have those things and have not descended into tyranny. Indeed, there are countries which have socialized large parts of their economy—Norway, for instance, where the government owns three-quarters of the country’s wealth aside from owner-occupied houses. This has resulted in very low inequality and very high quality of life because socialization of industry or wealth is not what destroyed either the USSR or Venezuela.
I could write much, much more about the problems with each argument Williams makes about socialism, but I fear this would be overlong and exhausting. Instead, I would like to ponder for a moment why these kinds of poor arguments keep coming to be. Williams is far from the first one to advance them—there is a pile of Christian literature containing similar arguments that do little to no interaction with actual socialists and which make claims that are at best in need of citation and at worst demonstrably false. In large part, I think this is because these arguments are made in environments where they will not be challenged. I hope that we are able to provide some challenges to those arguments here, and I encourage people writing on the question of socialism and Christianity to do the hard work of reading and responding to the arguments people are actually advancing. This website wouldn’t be a bad place to begin; the Catholic journalist Elizabeth Bruenig has also written well about the question of Christianity, capitalism, and socialism; and of course, there are many secular socialist arguments which are also both approachable and worthy of Christian engagement, such as those by Erik Olin Wright. It is far more in line with Christian charity to engage the substantial literature of a position than to ignore that literature and dismiss socialism’s proponents as simplistic idealists lacking in theological awareness.